Brian Chung | BC - Seeing the Bigger Picture

 

SEEING THE BIGGER PICTURE

This keynote address was delivered on October 24, 2000 at the World Piano Pedagogy Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada.

 

This morning, I’d like to talk to you about seeing the bigger picture of our profession.  Together, we'll take a look at what we do from a wider perspective--and, in the process, gain a better view of our future.

Upon hearing this, you might be asking, “Why is that important?”  It’s because big picture thinking helps us to make choices today that can make our future better.  For example, why do we listen to traffic reports on the radio?  Traffic may be moving just fine where we're driving right now – but the bigger picture from the “traffic-copter in the sky” tells us that there is trouble around the bend.  Better take a different route.
   
Why listen to the weather report?  The skies may look beautiful outside right now.  But the bigger picture from the weather satellite above might tell us that storm clouds are headed our way.  Better take that umbrella.

What happens when we ignore the bigger picture?  Often, we make mistakes.  Or we miss opportunities.  Here’s a prime example from the business world.  Do you remember who ruled the watch industry back in the 1960’s?  It was the Swiss.  Names like Longines and Bulova were the leaders of the world who dominated every facet of the “stylish watch” category.  But in the early 70’s came a warning of change in the bigger picture--something on the horizon called the digital watch.  It was still fairly expensive at that time, sort of a “trendy” thing.  But it had the potential to change the future of the watch business.

As the Swiss surveyed the competitive landscape, how do you think they responded to the advent of the digital watch?  Surprisingly, with indifference and disdain.  “People want a quality timepiece,” they said.  “Consumers want to see the hands move.  They want to wind the spring to feel that they’re part of the mechanism.  They’ll never accept a watch that runs on batteries!”

So what happened?  Before I answer that, let me ask you a couple of questions.  Does anyone remember what a simple calculator cost in 1973?  The answer is about $75.00.  And what did it cost two years later in 1975?  About $24.00… over two-thirds less!  As the cost of semi-conductors fell drastically, so did the cost of calculators… and what else?  You guessed it, digital watches. 

As it turns out, people didn’t mind having a watch with no hands that ran on batteries.  They bought them like hotcakes!  And what happened to the Swiss?  The bottom fell out of their business.  It almost destroyed them.  Because they failed to heed the bigger picture, they could never catch up with the digital watch business.  It’s taken them over 20 years to get back only part of what they lost.  To my knowledge, they still don’t make a digital watch.  And they’re not the leaders anymore.

What two principles can we glean from that story?   The first is – examine the bigger picture.  Watch it, study it… above all, don’t ignore it.  And the second principle is – don’t be afraid to make a course change, because the change you make today can help you avoid big problems in the future.
        
How do these two principles relate to us here today?  After all, things look pretty good.  You’ve got a full schedule of students.  Seems like you’ve got enough music majors enrolled this year.  Your concert schedule is staying pretty busy.  Traffic is running smoothly.  The weather is fine... don’t need an umbrella.  Well, maybe… maybe not.

Let’s look at the bigger picture.  What’s changed in our lives during the last two decades?  A better question might be, “What hasn’t changed?”  But there is one statement that people make more than ever today that typifies the dramatic difference between then and now.   The statement is this:  “I just don’t have enough time anymore.” 

Time – it’s the new currency.  We spend it, we invest it, we save it, we budget it.  Just as consumer products compete for our discretionary dollars, activities compete for our discretionary time these days… and especially for the time of our children.

Jump back with me many years and answer this question, “What did you do with your spare time as a kid?”  For me, it was a fairly short list of activities – Little League, Boy Scouts, a bowling league, watching some TV (okay, a lot of TV) on five or six channels.  It was a fairly simple existence.
   
Now compare that with the “spare time” alternatives for our children today.  Here’s just a partial list… girl’s baseball, T-ball, AYSO soccer, Club Soccer, Club basketball, tennis, volleyball, roller hockey, karate, dance lessons, gymnastics, cheer team, song team, computer-based games, Nintendo, Sega, PlayStation, web surfing, chat rooms, instant messaging, MTV, VH-1, ESPN1, ESPN2, Fox Sports, CNN, MSNBC, cable channel after cable channel, and every decent movie ever made on video and DVD.  With all that, I’m just scratching the surface.  The range of alternatives is astonishing!  Many of those choices didn’t even exist 20 years ago.  

So, let’s add this up.  Less discretionary time in our lives, but more available choices.  Less time, more choices.  Do the math… something has to go.  And for many people making choices out there, that something is us.  It’s learning to play the piano.  The reality of the bigger picture is that every day, thousands and thousands of people are choosing to do something else with their time besides play music.  You can see it in the dwindling number of students applying to be college music education majors.  You can see it in the growing number of students who start lessons, but then drop out to do something else.  You see it in the recent Gallup Poll statistics that show fewer and fewer people under the age of 35 participating in music.  We’re getting squeezed out, folks.  And we’re not doing enough to push our way back in.    

This really hit home for me when I attended several focus groups made up of 3rd graders from Dallas in 1999.  When asked what things they liked to do, playing music didn’t even register... with the boys or the girls.  "Awareness of music" seemed almost non-existent.  Some of you might say, “That’s because they weren’t previously exposed to music.”  With that in mind, we had more focus groups a year later; this time with children who had just completed twelve weeks of after-school group piano lessons.  And when asked what things they liked to do, playing piano still didn’t come up until they were prompted.  When asked what they thought of piano lessons, their responses were fairly positive, but hardly enthusiastic.  Such a disappointment!  

The fact is, playing music is no longer the cultural imperative that it once was in this country.  When people want music, they get it on CD or music video or even off the Internet.  They enjoy it vicariously.  They don’t feel the need to make it themselves.  And when we look at our personal situations and see the problem as “too many dropouts from our programs,” we’re only seeing the proverbial “tip of the iceberg.”  We haven’t looked far enough to view the true bigger picture.  Our much bigger problem is the reality of millions and millions of people out there whom we never got to teach… the people we never even got a shot at.  I call them “the lost millions.”  Something else got them first.  And the worst part is – it doesn’t even bother us, because we never realized they were gone.

Does this trouble you?  It should.  It should rattle you down to your soul on a variety of levels.  On a philosophical level, it should bother you to think how much better off the world would have been if many of those lost millions had been involved in music.  From a purely pragmatic standpoint, it should bother you because of the lost income opportunities – billions and billions of dollars that would’ve been part of this profession… part of your living… and you never saw it.  From an ego standpoint, it should frustrate you that this profession doesn’t generate the recognition and popularity that other pursuits (such as sports) seem to receive.  We can all see what happens when millions of people flock to some other activity.  That popularity elevates the status and esteem of all those involved, teachers and participants alike.  Does it bother you that music teachers so often seem to play second fiddle to the football coaches?

And if you’re an artist/performer or a teacher of only “elite” students, the reality of the “lost millions” should enrage you.  Why? Because many of those millions would have been your audiences, the people who would’ve bought your CD’s and attended your concerts… the people who might have supported your institutions, sponsored your recitals or bequeathed large gifts to your university or music school.  And they would have done these things not because they became great players or became your students… but because they came to love and appreciate the art form as a result of their participation at any level, even as a beginner.

The reality of “lost millions” should bother every one of us… for we have lost more than we can ever know.

So, what do we do?  We fight back.  I only have time to share a few recommendations.  So, please allow me skip through the first three before I focus on the one that is perhaps the most relevant to this assembly.

First, a question.  How many of you enjoy doing calisthenics for 45 minutes all by yourself?  Not many.  Most people wouldn’t.  But bring a group of people together for that same 45 minutes of exercise, make it fun and exciting, and what do you have?  An aerobics class.  Millions of people participate in aerobics classes every day!  You see, the prospect of fun and group companionship brings individuals out to do things that they wouldn’t ordinarily do by themselves.

Thus, Recommendation #1 – we must make music-making fun.  At every level, but especially at the early learner stage, we must make it fun.  Why?  Given a choice between fun and work, 9 out of 10 people will choose fun.  And there are more “fun alternatives” available today than the world has ever known.  So if we, using just a serious mindset, try to compete against fun, we will lose… hands down.  To survive in today’s world, we need to make music-making fun.

This leads to Recommendation #2… we must make it social.  Why is it that most activities today are taught in groups?  Golf, gymnastics, tennis – activities that are all primarily individual in nature – are all taught in groups.  Even computer and video games that used to be for individuals, are now mostly designed to be played in groups.  Sports teams, group dancing, internet chat rooms… why are these all done in groups?  It’s because people want a “shared experience.”  If that is so, then why are most piano lessons, even ones at the beginning level, taught individually?  If our culture has moved en masse to group experiences, we need to change.  We need to find more ways to teach group piano.

If, after hearing these first two recommendations, you say, “Sorry, I’ve done it this way so long, I can’t change.”  I understand.  But if you cannot change, then please  support and encourage those who can and will make a difference in these areas.  Our future depends on it.

Recommendation #3: “Incorporate the New Technology”.  You’ve heard talks on this subject before, so I won’t dwell on it.  But you know that there are many, many ways that we can link technology with our teaching.  And you also know that the technological revolution is like a tidal wave that won’t wait for you to come along for the ride. To ignore it is to eventually become like a dinosaur… to be the only one carrying the abacus while everyone else carries a hand-held computer.  To relate to the next generation, we must understand and embrace their tools.  That doesn’t mean we have to give up ours, but we must reach out to theirs.  If you can’t, again please encourage those who do.

My last recommendation is perhaps the most important.  We must find "Strength in Unity."  I often refer to the example of the computer industry to explain this concept.  Many years ago, the computer industry was in a state of relative disarray… like a bunch of rowboats all spinning in different directions; each company with its own proprietary technologies and separate goals.   But as time passed, they decided that the only way their industry could truly make a quantum leap forward was to jump into the same boat… with shared platforms, open architectures and shared vision.  As a result, the industry gradually moved from rowboats on a lake, to a single steamboat on a river, to a large freighter moving toward the sea.  They got there by moving in a common direction – abandoning rigid, self-oriented thinking for the sake of a better, bigger future. And today, you could describe the computer industry as a luxury liner cruising on the open ocean.

Where is our industry today?  When I use the term “industry,” I’m referring to a wider definition of music making that includes not just performers and educators, but also groups such as instrument manufacturers, piano technicians and retailers.  Where are we as an industry today?  I would submit that we are still like rowboats on a lake spinning around in our own separate directions.

Within the teaching profession, various groups have their own agendas, their own standards, their own wants and preferences.  And looking from my wider more inclusive definition of the music making industry, we have perhaps never begun to see ourselves as “together in the same boat.”  How do we change this reality?

The first step is to realize that our futures depend on one another.  In pedagogy, it starts with independent, grass roots teachers understanding that the teachers of the “elite students” are essential to their livelihood… for it is these elite performers, both teachers and their students, who capture the imagination of new players and ignite the musical passion to excel.  But, conversely, these “teachers of the elite” must understand that, without the independent grassroots teacher, they might have no one to teach today.  What would the lives of the “elite teachers” be like if their top students had never taken that first lesson… or had a bad experience and dropped out to play soccer.  The independent teachers are the nurturers… the ones who establish solid musical foundations for the future.  What would the “elite teachers” do without them?

You see, we are essential to one another.  Call it symbiosis or mutualism – whatever the title, this concept is critical not only to the teaching profession, but also to the way we perceive ourselves as an entire music industry.  We need to give up our rowboats and begin to see ourselves on one big ship called the USS Music Maker.  And once aboard this ship, we must stop thinking “If I just do my own thing, everything will be alright.”  That could work if there were 100 of us in a boat that had exactly 100 holes in it.  “I’ll just plug one hole and do my part, right?”  Wrong.  Friends, our boat has many hundreds and hundreds of holes in it where the “lost millions” are escaping.  Therefore, we need to work together, creatively and cooperatively, not only to plug all the holes and keep afloat, but to move out of this tiny little lake toward the open ocean to sail with the big boys.

  • We need to make music making fun.
  • We need to make it more social.
  • We need to incorporate the new technology.
  • And we need to find strength in unity.

I know that, in some ways, I’ve presented a pretty rough view of our situation.  But, lest you think me to be a pessimist, allow me close with a reminder of why we do what we do… and why there continues to be hope for a bright future.  It’s because this thing that we do called “music making” has the incredible power to change lives.  Whether it’s through our performances, or our instruction, or the wonderful discipline that this art form engenders in people… the process of music making has made our world a better, richer place because of the way it shapes us as people.

Some of you know the story of a young five-year-old boy who took his first piano lesson and fell in love.  Playing the piano helped to shape his perception of himself as his buddies would always ask him to play that one song they liked so much.  It helped his self-image as he would accompany choirs through junior high and high school.  It helped him earn his way through college as he played at various theme parks across the country during the summers.  It took him to England as a Rotary Scholar.  It helped him earn a National Endowment Grant in jazz studies.  It played a role in the relationship that led to his marriage.  It helped determine the way he would serve in worship at his church for over 20 years.  And it would even help determine where he would work one day – at, of all things, a piano company… called Kawai.  And it would bring him to this time and this place where he could share these words with you.

The point is that this is not just “my story” – but with different shades and colors, different twists and turns, it is also your story… and the story of thousands and thousands of others like us across this land.  It is a story built on more than just achievement and intellect – but a story born of deep passion… and the belief that this art form can shape much more than simply “what we do”… but that it can literally and powerfully shape “who we are”… as individuals, as a culture, as a nation, and as a world.

This is the immense power of this thing called music making.  And you and I are its caretakers.  What will we do with this power?  Will we stick it in a cooler in our rowboat as we spin around on a little lake?  Or will we commit to join hands and board a ship together on a quest to reach the open ocean?  My friends, our future depends on this decision.  It is up to each of us… and it is up to all of us.

     
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